Let the good times roll

Michael Andretti helps new Minister of Labour Peter Fonseca into a Honda racing car yesterday. (Sun...

Michael Andretti helps new Minister of Labour Peter Fonseca into a Honda racing car yesterday. (Sun Media/Michael Peake)

DEAN MCNULTY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:14 PM ET

If success is bred from one part luck, one part enthusiasm and one part hard work, Andretti Green Racing already is two-thirds of the way to making the return of the Toronto Indy in 2009 a hit.

Yesterday at the Direct Energy Centre at Exhibition Place, AGR unveiled Honda as the title sponsor for the freshly minted Honda Toronto Indy. In these uncertain economic times, to get such a deal is indeed the apex of luck.

Then AGR's chairman and No. 1 cheerleader, Michael Andretti, kick-started the enthusiasm the event will need to come back from a year off of racing on the temporary street circuit along the shores of Lake Ontario.

It would seem that all that is needed now is for AGR team members to roll up their sleeves and get to work putting Toronto's premier summer sporting event back together again.

Just six months ago that seemed a Herculean task, especially after the merger of the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series resulted in Toronto being left off the 2008 schedule -- marking the first time in 22 years that the roar from open-wheel race cars would not be heard in this city.

After two years of fading attendance, poor promotion and weak grids after Molson left as caretaker of the event in 2005, the decision by the IRL not to include Toronto on its race calendar this past season easily could have been its death knell.

But by sheer force of his iconic racing heritage and the fondness he has for the race where he won an astonishing seven times, Andretti vowed he could not let the Toronto Indy die.

"He must have sent (IRL racing boss) Brian Barnhart 1,000 text messages, arguing that Toronto had to be put back on the racing calendar," AGR public relations chief Al Larsen said yesterday.

According to Andretti, as soon as word began to leak out that he was trying to purchase the Toronto race, he got a phone call from Honda Canada executive Jerry Chenkin saying that if AGR was intent on going ahead with the deal, Honda wanted in.

It must be understood that finding a title sponsor for any sporting event usually is the hardest and final thing that gets done to make it work. In this case, the Honda deal was done before the ink was dry on AGR's agreement to buy the Toronto Indy.

That gave AGR a running start to force Barnhart and the IRL to give them the traditional second week in July race date for Toronto in 2009.

"Since 1986, (Toronto) has been a can't-miss event in racing," Andretti said. "It always had the biggest crowds and the solid commitment from community, government and industry in Ontario."

He said that it is his goal to bring back the glory days when the downtown core was the place to be for race fans and tourists alike when the green flag dropped at Exhibition Place.

Kevin Savoree, Andretti's partner, will be the go-to guy for the Honda Toronto Indy and he said yesterday that the Japanese manufacturer's participation is key to rebuilding the event.

"The Honda brand is very powerful and is one of the true driving forces behind the growth and success of the IndyCar Series," Savoree said. "Andretti Green and Honda have a long legacy of successful partnership and the Honda Indy Toronto will benefit immeasurably from the strength of that relationship."

Of course, it was cheques from the province, the city (via Exhibition Place) and Tourism Toronto -- believed to be about $2 million a year over the next three years -- that sealed the deal for AGR.

"We simply could not have done this without the support of all levels of government," Andretti said.

What he didn't mention was the $50-million windfall the race will bring to Toronto next summer.

Not a bad return on an investment of $6 million.


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